Photos by Alison Smith
You know the players. You know the head coach. But what about the men behind the scenes working their tails off to secure a Bison victory on Saturdays? We sat down with all ten of the Bison assistant coaches to get the real behind the scenes story of what’s going on inside the Bison football program. SPOILER ALERT: It’s going extremely well! From recruiting to watching an endless amount of game film and everything in between, we roamed the sidelines with your Bison assistant football coaches.
Year at NDSU– 16th
Alma Mater – North Dakota State University
Recruiting Territory – North Dakota and Western Minnesota
There are many ways to get through to your players. What would you say is your coaching philosophy?
“You know, I think if a coach isn’t trying to bring the best out of his kids on the field or off the field then they are misguided. I think it’s about having our kids prepared for when they leave here and well suited for life after football. Now specifically, related to football I think our philosophy is to play a team brand of football, and I think our way of getting that done is to be excellent on defense and special teams and offensively be able to make all that work. We’re not a separate entity on offense and the defense isn’t a separate entity, and we all work together.”
Several coaches have joined the staff the past few years. How is the continuity within the coaching staff?
“Coach Bohl carefully selects guys that I think everyone will respect each other and work towards one common goal while being able to get along in a work environment day-to-day. I think that’s really important because we don’t always have to agree on everything, but I think ultimately everyone has to respect each other and be able to function on a day to day basis. I think if you have that as a coaching staff, you can start moving in one direction and understanding that we’re all a part of one team, opposed to just the offense and defensive positions.”
In what way is your job rewarding for you at NDSU?
“I think having played here and gone to school here, you have certain amount of pride and having the opportunity to stay here and coach. It has enhanced that feeling you have towards the university and ultimately helped to be a part of the success we have achieved over the past few years. It has given me a tremendous amount of pride knowing that all the former players that I played with and the ones that have come after me. I know what they’re feeling. … I know what they are seeing in our program. Once a Bison always a Bison is true, and the success we have achieved not only belongs to the team, but the teams back through time. It’s unique being a part of an elite program. It’s unique to me because this is the only place I have been.”
What has enhanced the football program the most?
“We have talented players … but you’re recruiting a good person with talent. As coaches, hopefully we can enhance those qualities and our kids work really hard and really understand the team concept. Ultimately they go out and perform on Saturdays and we’re a small part of that, but all the time spent away from those Saturdays make it happen. It’s a long process, it’s recruiting, its development and preparation; it’s all those things, but they’re a group of guys that work well together.”
Year at NDSU – 5th
Alma Mater – North Dakota State University
Experience – Valley City State (1997-98), Wisconsin-Eau Claire (1999), Minnesota-Crookston (2000-03), Nebraska-Omaha (2003-06), Grand Valley State (2007) and Southern Illinois (2008)
Recruiting Territory – Twins Cities and Southern Minnesota
What are you looking for out of your offensive linemen?
“I like my guys to understand that this position needs to be very physical. You cannot take away from your guy’s ability to be physical because your guy’s job is to hit people. They’re not running and catching the ball and stuff like that so you need to be physical. I like guys that can add a layer of intelligence. They need to be smart, understand what we are doing and how we are doing it when you’re talking technique. You can take a real physical kid and if he can learn what you want him to do and he goes where you want him to go, I think you can get the well-rounded player. …I want them to be very physical and very talented and when you have those two things, I think you have a shot.”
NDSU used to call their linemen the ram. Are you working to continue that identity?
“When they had the identity of the rams…the rams means you’re big and athletic. You’re big and you hit each other, and they’re agile, they’re on top of the mountain and they knock the crap out of each other. I think they buy into that identity and it’s been that way for so long. I’m excited when guys like Billy Turner or guys that I have coached since I have been here that have been a part of it since I have been here and when I got back. That identity on the offensive line has been different and has been more special than any other place I have been. I have been to a lot of places and I think they really take a lot of pride in that. …There’s a certain amount of respect that people have for you when you first come in and there’s levels of it. The better you do the more you respond to the responsibilities. By the virtue of getting older you get more respect, and it’s a growing process and I think it will always be a growing process.”
Have you been able to get your kids involved with the program a lot?
“I want to say yes, but I guess it depends on how you define ‘a lot.’ They are around and those guys know who Hank and Jack are, especially my guys. Even guys like Marcus. The boys come in after a win, come in the locker room and see the players. It’s special, not a lot of kids get to do that kind of stuff. The players know we have families and there has not been a kid I wouldn’t trust around my boys to babysit them and stuff like that.”
Tight Ends/ Running Backs
Year at NDSU – 1st
Alma Mater – University of Nebraska-Omaha
Experience – University of Nebraska Omaha (2003-2005) and (2007-2010), Concordia University-St. Paul (2006) and Sacramento State (2011-2012)
Recruiting Territory – Eastern Wisconsin and Northern Illinois
What was the most appealing thing to you about coming to NDSU?
“The reason I did come here was, number one, obviously, is this job is extremely appealing because of the success that this program and this institution has had. Not only in the previous two season, but back when I was a football player at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. … Secondly, the most attractive thing to me was the people around here. … When we dropped football at Nebraska-Omaha, Coach Bohl recruited and signed Bryan Shepard and I got to meet with both of them at the same time a couple years back and have just been extremely, extremely impressed with those people. With every person I meet involved with this football program reassures me from the decision I have made, from Gene Taylor on down. Those are the two primary reasons. A personal reason would be that I’m a Midwest guy and coming back was pretty important to me.”
You have only been here over the summer. What are your thoughts on your new co-workers?
“The coaching staff here is phenomenal. Not only in the way of being extremely impressed with them as coaches, but also how helpful they have made it for me in the transition. How warm they are and how friendly they are. Those are things are so very important because you spend so much time with those guys in the office.”
Has the relationships within the coaching staff ultimately helped in the program’s success?
“There’s no question in my mind. Being at different programs there’s an enormous correlation in not only the continuity of the staff, but you also look at the how close the staff is together. We go golfing together; I think that is extremely important. I think that there is a correlation in that and the success that has happened here, especially in the past couple of years.”
What do you hope to bring to the Bison football program?
“I hope that there is a number of different things I can help value-wise. I know coach Bohl felt that way when he hired me. It’s going to come down to working my rear end off, and that’s a pretty vague answer, but anything that I can do is working my rear end off and bring the knowledge of the experience I have had in recent years in different areas, whether it be in recruiting, offensive schematics that can bring value to the team. Basically, don’t screw things up is the main reason.” (laughs)
Wide Receivers/Recruiting Coordinator
Year at NDSU – 4th
Alma Mater – Indiana University
Experience – Millersville (Pa.) University (2007) and Southern Illinois (2008-2009)
Recruiting Territory – Twin Cities and inner-city Chicago
What is the prototypical attributes you are looking for in a recruit?
“Biggest thing we are looking for is a guy with tremendous athletic ability — someone that has a ton of upside. Typically, what we are dealing with in recruiting is a kid that is not a finished product. Usually a guy who is a finished product is probably going to a Big 10 school. Typically we are dealing with a guy who is a little bit too short, doesn’t have enough speed, but has a ton of upside that could potentially overcome those obstacles. We’re also looking for a kid that loves football, that loves to play football and loves to be a part of something great, which we believe we have here. A kid that also believes in our philosophy of winning championships and working hard and having what it takes to win championships and someone who really just fits our mold and what we are trying to do from a football philosophy standpoint. Most of all, someone that wants to be here, that wants to be a part of a great product and a great thing.”
How do you build relationships with your position players?
“There’s a little give and take there, but if you ask any one of those guys that has played for me, he is going to say he’s going to push you, grind on you, but at the end of the day, he cares about you and is going to maximize your potential. You really maximize all you can be and at the end of the day, you’re happy what you left here as a player at NDSU. … I think it’s a gradual progression. In the beginning when a kid comes in to NDSU he has to understand the seriousness of what he just became a part of and the seriousness that this is big time division one football and everything you do is going to be portrayed in some way. if it’s jumping off-sides, can cost us a game or a dropped pass. He needs to understand every little thing he does. So right away there might be some distance and an expectation of them growing as a person and a football player.”
Are you ever apprehensive from pushing your players too much in fear that they might not respond?
“Warren Holloway, who had a terrific career, was a hard one to get a read on when he first got here. We did not see eye-to-eye at all. But I tell you this much. It was father’s day this past weekend and I got a text from Warren saying, ‘Thanks for being my father away from home,’ and that means a lot to me as a coach. You know what you’re doing is right and what you’re doing is the right way. And a guy like Ryan Smith, who I grinded also, and seeing what he is doing; he’s a guy who would tell you Coach Burns is one of my best friends.”
Year at NDSU – 2nd
Alma Mater – Bemidji State University
Experience – Bemidji State University (Minn.) (2007-2011)
The backfield is one of the deepest part of this team. What kind of guys are they?
“John Crockett is probably more of a fireball, more of a fire cracker, and Sam is a laid back guy and doesn’t get too hyped until he’s on that football field. He’s a little bit more of a veteran at staying even keeled until getting onto the football field. John is more of a firecracker and is going to bring more energy on the practice field. …They compete and they know they are going to compete for carries during the games, and it depends on practice so both of them practice very hard. And Derrick Lang is right there too practicing hard. Derrick is more of the Dad of the group. All three of them get along well great with each other and hang out with each other, so it’s a good group.”
Where is the leadership capability at with your dynamic duo in the back field?
“Every day it’s all about leadership. Everything we do off the field too. The main thing we talk about is all the little things. If you do all the little things right off the field then big things are going to happen on the field. That being said, classroom stuff, in public that perceptions you are showing off the field, when people look at you what are you saying. We talk a lot about that and obviously it’s been good. We have seen some changes out of those guys and their stance and becoming role models and doing the right things”
You coached the d-line at Bemidji State. How does that work when you now coach the offensive side of the ball?
“It works because I think as a coach you have to know a lot about both sides of the ball and to have some insight about what’s going on the defensive side of the ball. What are the linebackers looking at, what kind of steps are they looking at, maybe our eyes and our posture? Are they pointing things out as linebackers that can help out? But also just to be able to explain defenses to those guys because everything that we do is going to happen to how the defense is going to react to what’s happening. In our meeting rooms, a lot of our talks aren’t about the offense, they’re defensives talks. What’s the defense going to be doing? So they’re going to know exactly if the full back is going to the linebacker. Is he going to go underneath the full back or over the top? Before they even step onto the football field, they are going to know everything about what the linebackers are going to do to a certain blocker. To be able to have that perspective and being able to talk that way is really helpful for the guys on the football field to react fast and play fast.”
Year at NDSU – 3rd
Alma Mater – University of Northern Iowa
Experience – University of Northern Iowa (1991-1993) and (2006-2010), Western Illinois (1994-1996), Kansas (1997), Missouri State (1999) and Loras College (2001-2004)
Recruiting Territory – Kansas City
What’s your coaching philosophy?
“You develop your own style and philosophy. You have a lot of influences and I think I have had a lot of great influences at the number of schools I have been at. … I have just been blessed to work with so many great coaches and I have developed into my own philosophy.”
What is the best part about being the defensive coordinator of the best defense in the nation?
“We have tremendous players and great kids. I really enjoy coaching them and I really enjoy being around them. That’s the fun part of the job for me is the interaction I have with them on a daily basis, whether it’s in the meeting room, whether it’s in practice or whether it’s off the field. Those things and in general, I really enjoy being around our players. Our players are first-class. Our players are great to the community, great with my kids and it’s a joy for me to come to work every day because I get to interact with these guys.”
Explain the relationship your kids have with the football program.
“They have been a great part of Bison football and Bison athletics. My oldest son, who is going to be a sophomore at Shanley, has been on the sidelines for a lot of games as a ball boy for us. Coach Bohl has done a great job of including families into the Bison family. I think I have been really fortunate and blessed to get my kids around these players and this program. What better role models for my kids to look up to than the players we have here?”
What makes the Bison defense the best in the country?
“Our kids buy into what we are trying to portray to them. Whether it’s from the head coach, Craig Bohl, to myself and Vigs as coordinator to the other assistants, they buy into what we are trying to teach them. What example we are trying to make. Whatever we are doing x’s and o’s wise, whatever we are doing philosophy wise, whatever we’re doing motivation wise. They really buy into it. You can have great players, but if the great players don’t believe what you are doing and trust each other to know what’s in the best interest of the program then you don’t have the success we are having. …There’s no one on the other side of the fence. They’re all in here.”
Year at NDSU – 4th
Alma Mater – University of Wisconsin-Eau Clair
Experience – Marietta College (Ohio) (2003-2004), Augustana College (Ill.) (2005-2006) and Minnesota-Duluth (2007-2009)
Recruiting Territory – Western Wisconsin
You have been here for a few years now. What is your favorite part about this University?
“The thing I love about North Dakota State is the commitment, not only at the University level, but the community supporting the football program. … Nowhere I have compares to here. It makes it really fun. You’re here to win football games, you’re judged on winning football games and to me that’s what it’s all about. The community has been great, the school has been great, the coaching staff has been great and certainly the players have been great. I have had the opportunity to coach some really good football players. Places I have been at in the past have been at a lower level and have been different than FCS football. So the opportunity to coach really dynamic and good football players has been really fun to coach at a really high level”
You get to coach some pretty good players. What is the best thing about being their coach?
“What I enjoy about it is that they’re kids like me, they’re Midwestern kids, they are tough kids and work really hard not only on the football field, but work really hard in the classroom. I enjoy kids like that, that are going to be extremely dedicated in the weight room and out on the practice field and then certainly in the classroom. … I think I can relate with most of them. … They grow up in a place where they have to work hard and that’s a way I believe I can relate to these kids. They’re maybe not the most talented kids but they are willing to work at it and willing to listen to what I say they watch film and do all the little things that make them pretty darn good football players.”
How comfortable are you with the product you are putting in the trenches each game?
“We are returning really good players that have had a ton of experience up front, but the one question mark we have is that we have had a couple guys with some serious knee injuries. … Where are those guys going to be at and what are the guys behind them going to do. The thing I feel really good about is that we have some depth there. This is the deepest we have ever been at this position since I have been here. I feel good about playing four to five to possibly six guys in there that can go in there and give us some meaningful reps in our conference, so I’m excited about that. Now, we have got to have a great start to the season, we have to go out there and compete, we have to go out there and practice hard.”
You have a son due in the fall. How is the addition to the family going to change the way you balance your football and family life?
“I have a very understanding wife; she was an athlete herself so she knows how involved I am and how she was when she was doing it. So she knows what it’s all about and I appreciate that. It’s always tough to juggle your personal life and coaching ball. So every opportunity I have, I try to spend time with her and certainly our new baby at some point here.”
Year at NDSU– 8th
Alma Mater – North Dakota State University
Recruiting Territory – Arizona and Florida
How did you end up in Fargo?
“I came to NDSU in 2004, our first year as a division one school. … I knew nothing about NDSU until I came on my visit and the fans were rapid. Went to a Bison-Sioux women’s basketball game with 5,000 people there and I figured if they get that crazy about basketball, they must really love football!”
You were in training camp with the Green Bay Packers. What do you tell your players aspiring to play in the NFL?
“The next level, the NFL, people think they know, but they have no idea. .. .I try to talk to our guys here that are getting ready for the next level to understand that it’s not just physical toughness, but mental toughness. Understanding that it’s a business, getting cut and obviously becoming coachable and doing the little things that will help them at that level because that’s what will show up. They might be great players here, but there are great players across the country, you’re just another name sometimes. The biggest thing they can do is just play well. That’s the difference between any other evaluation levels in football; NFL scouts rely a lot on game film. … What’s going to separate you? Well you better be doing things right on the field, every little thing. You better have the ability to be coached, to work hard, to be passionate about football, and if there’s a knock on any of those things, well, they will just go to the SEC and get a guy who is a back-up.”
What’s the level of play like in the FCS?
“I played in the Great West Conference and it was a good conference, and I believe that the level of play in the Missouri Valley Conference is the best in the country week in and week out. There are no “gimme” games, there are no easy teams, no games you can take off; any team can beat you in this conference. … So you have to be ready for any week. It’s not just team, but at least from a defensive perspective, every week whether it’s challenging scheme, or extremely talented players on other teams, team’s offenses; it’s very unique. It’s great because when we have been able to get to the playoffs, we feel that we have been battle tested. We have seen multiple schemes, we have seen extremely talented players whether its tight-ends, running backs, receivers, o-lines or quarterbacks, we have seen the best in the country at every spot. We feel, at least on defense that has really helped us prepare and get ready.”
You just had a recent addition to your family. What has the transition been like?
“For me, as a young coach, I have had some great guys in the office to bounce ideas off of and talk to about how do you do this, how do you handle this with your family, because there is no perfect way and it starts with having a great wife. It’s nice having some of the older guys who have had twenty years of coaching and seeing how they do things.”
Year at NDSU – 2nd
Alma Mater – University of Nebraska
Experience – University of Nebraska (1988-1990), Nebraska Wesleyan (1991-1995), South Dakota (1996), New Mexico State University (1997-2002), Colorado State University (2003-2007), Ohio University (2008) and Tulane University (2009-2011)
Recruiting Territory – South Dakota and Nebraska
You have an amazing resume. Do you still feel like you have a lot to learn about coaching?
“You hope. What’s coach Bohl’s line: You’re either green and growing, or ripe and rotting. Point being I think you’re constantly evolving as a coach and you can keep improving. It’s been a great experience coming up here. NDSU really reminds me of Nebraska. There’s a real commitment to winning here. And more importantly than a commitment to winning, but to doing it right. Meaning whatever level NDSU has chosen to compete on whether it’s division two or FCS, they have chosen to do it at a championship level. It’s been a great opportunity to recharge my battery.”
You and coach Bohl go way back. How did your relationship with him start?
“He was a G.A. at Nebraska while I was being recruited at Nebraska. He went to Lincoln East, I went to Lincoln South East, we went to rival schools. He’s older than I am, about six seven years older… so we have known each other for a long time, then he called about me coming up here. I wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to go, and he just said come up here, take your family and take a look at it. Soon as I pulled into the parking lot, I said coach this is big time. … I got to meet Gene Taylor and the rest of the coaching staff and everybody around here. You would get a sense of what I said earlier, the commitment to doing things at a high-level. We had a secondary coach from USC come in here and he said, ‘Shoot, your offices are nicer than ours.’ You never know what you have. Every place is the Taj Mahal and that’s not the case. Coach Bohl has done a good job here of developing the facilities along with Gene Taylor, and they’re always moving forward. And the facilities here for football are as good or if not better than you know the Ohio’s, the New Mexico State’s or the mid-majors.
It sure helps when you have amazing players to coach.
Without a doubt. And then I got to meet with a couple of the linebackers, you might look at me like I’m crazy, but the three guys that start for us here, are the three best I have coached anywhere, including Colorado State, New Mexico State, Tulane, Ohio, as a group. I have had some good guys that went to play pro football but that was just one, I’m talking the three together are as good as I have coached. There are some good football players here and that’s been the most refreshing thing and how it affects my kids
What is your relationship like with the players?
“They’re awesome. That’s all Max talks about. … They are so gracious. Brock, Marcus, Carleton, John Crockett, came up the other day for Max’s birthday. I have never coached anywhere where guys do that … to remember my kids’ names. I remember one time after a game, Geo, it was after the 29 tackle game against Wofford, the guy was barely walking and he said, ‘hey Max, hey Madison,’ and gave them a hug. It’s a special group and there’s a reason we have had the success these last three years. It’s because of the quality of men. We as coaches and I really appreciate it.”
Year at NDSU – 3rd
Alma Mater – North Dakota State University
What are some of the differences here that you have noticed since being a player?
“The expectation to win has always been here. Not necessarily pressure to win because it’s expected. So that hasn’t changed at all. Our fans’ support has remained the same here as well. The one thing that I have seen is primarily just the national exposure, which is a little bit different in the past. We haven’t had as much exposure as we did. I would say that is the only difference as far as sell-outs and stuff. All of that stuff has been here my entire time. I would like to say the national exposure has been the most different.”
Does being a young coach make it harder to get through to your players?
“The majority of the guys, they weren’t here when I was playing, well, none of them were here when I was playing, so I was more of a student assistant and G.A. so I was still in the coaching world. Marcus Williams is the only one because I actually hosted him on his recruiting visit. He and Brendin Pierre are the only two that kind of see me as, yeah, you’re our coach but I still remember you on my recruiting visit, but other than that the majority of the guys still look at me as coach. Those two do as well. Primarily, what I try to do is give them my insight from me being a former player. X’s and o’s, Coach Klieman does a great job at that and I’m still learning from him every day, but other than that the technique and what to look for and stuff like that coming from the corner position, I try to share my knowledge and my experience with them.”
Most of the players in the secondary have been around and have played big roles in the past. How do they remain hungry for another championship?
“A little insight people may not know is that the secondary considers themselves a wolf pack. … A wolf pack basically consists of a wolf who can hunt alone like in man-to-man coverage, but as a pack together, too. Each person is a wolf and the whole group together is a pack. Basically, it means we carry that wolf mentality. When we have to hunt, we huntin’. There’s meat out there that we have to take, meaning the ball or our opponent. … Having that mentality, that edge as a predator, we are one of the top predators in the nation, so that’s why we have that mentality of being the best at everything we do and staying hungry. If you’re in a pack and you have eight to 10 wolves in a pack, one carcass isn’t going to do it in an entire day. … Every single play we have to go out and get something to eat. … It makes sure we don’t stay stagnate because we have a lot of returning starters, so it’s easy to get complacent from back-to-back titles, but if you’re a wolf, you’re not satisfied with the one big carcass you just ate. Constantly having that mentality and generally, wolves is something they can relate to.”